Copywriting Friday: “I amazed even myself!”

Published: February 2024

This article is drawn from our internal Copywriting Friday files, where we highlight the skill of great copywriters. We’ve done this for years—using our vast vault of highly converting ads.

Some of the older examples are dated in style and tone, but the principles and techniques are both timeless AND critical for conversion rate optimization. Enjoy.

This article focuses on the Johnson Box, a copywriting technique that’s close to our hearts at Conversion Rate Experts.

A Johnson Box is a highlighted section of text at the top of a direct mail letter, email, or web page. It’s designed to grab attention, emphasize key points, and keep the reader on what Joe Sugarman called the “slippery slide”—a path that effortlessly leads the reader through the content. (Sugarman wrote the copywriting classic, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook.)

A Johnson Box in action

In a previous article, we promised to go deeper into a promotion for the book The Truth About Money. Having analyzed the back of the envelope, we now move on to the first page of the letter inside.

But first, it’s worth reminding ourselves that the promotion was written in the 1990s and targeted older readers. You can tell this from the front of the envelope:

The front of the enveople for this promotion. The envelope headline reads, ‘How can you erase years of poor financial habits?’ Beneath there’s is a photo of a self-satisfied gray-haired man smoking a cigar.

It’s easy to cringe at the self-satisfied geezer with the cigar, but remember this promotion is 30 years old. It understands its target market, not to mention how to keep an audience moving forward.

That’s why the copywriter chooses to open their 8-page sales letter with a Johnson Box.

The first page of the promotion is dominated by a Johnson box containing eight specific claims. See below for the specific content.

Analysis

Let’s start with the headline, viewed in the context of erasing poor financial habits:

I amazed even myself.

The first line is both relatable and disarming, but it also lays the foundation for the whole promotion—a journey of personal and financial growth.

We’re on a journey, the reader thinks, and the person writing this letter has gone ahead and sent back a map!

Then it gets better…

Me, understand money? No way! Not long ago, I struggled to balance my checkbook. But now I know…

Wait. He’s just like me.

The copywriter has conjured the persona of their target market—someone who struggles with financial matters. The goal is to get us nodding along.

This idea—that someone like me has gone ahead and gotten the results I want—is incredibly powerful. Think of all the testimonials and case studies we see supporting the sales of products and services.

The copywriter is conjuring a similar effect.

Wow, this guy struggled to balance his checkbook (like me), but look at what he’s learned:

  • The trick that makes credit cards WORK FOR ME, not against me.
  • The TWO WORDS that will finally make me financially secure.
  • The MORTGAGE SECRET that benefits me—and drives bankers nuts!
  • The key step that will take me from OWING money to OWNING money.
  • The MAGIC NUMBER that the IRS doesn’t want anyone to discover.
  • The ONE ASSET that I must leave to my kids. (HINT: It’s NOT money.)
  • The secret that makes it IMPOSSIBLE for someone to steal my identity.
  • Why getting totally out of debt can be a big FINANCIAL MISTAKE.

What feelings do these lines evoke for you (even if you aren’t the target market)?

If you read the previous article you’ll see how similar these bullets are to the fascinations on the back of the envelope.

The back of the envelope.

Similar, but not the same. If you’re counting—and we are—the copywriter has made 14 big claims for the book so far.

And this is just page 1 of the “letter.” The anticipation is mounting again, driven by language that’s dense with promises, secrets, and magic.

In particular, we’ll call out three techniques the copy uses to grab attention and engage its target market:

  1. It touches on key pain points for its audience— credit card debt, financial insecurity, and identity theft. It knows its audience.
  2. It builds curiosity by leaving more questions than answers. What’s the number the IRS doesn’t want me to discover, and why?
  3. It uses specificity to lend credibility. It’s not the “assets that you must leave to your kids”; it’s “the ONE ASSET.”

Here’s an example of all three of these techniques coming together in a single line—specificity, curiosity, and the (implied) pain of financial insecurity.

The TWO WORDS that will finally make me financially secure.

And beneath all this, as we mentioned, is the implicit journey from where you are now to where you want to be.

This journey, of course, is the driving force for life (and sales). We can always imagine something better, wherever we are, and there’s no shortage of people willing to “help” us get there.

Consider this line:

The MORTGAGE SECRET that benefits me—and drives bankers nuts!

It’s intriguing of course, but it also promises insider knowledge.

In one sense, it’s drawing a line in the sand. On one side are the masses, the chumps who don’t know The Truth About Money. On the other side are the lucky few, those of us who are in the know and financially free.

Are you in or out?

As with the envelope, the copywriter has built huge tension in a few lines. If you were in the target market, it would be hard to put the letter down.

Which, of course, is the point.

Using Johnson Boxes in your business

While the Johnson Box has its roots in printed sales letters, the technique of presenting key benefits upfront remains incredibly effective. For example:

  1. In your emails, optimize the preview text to focus on the key value proposition, or use a header section to summarize all the value you’ve included.
  2. On your landing pages, optimize the content that’s visible without scrolling, or add a “sticky” area that will keep key messages onscreen.
  3. On your social media posts, pay extra attention to the “preview” text that appears before the post expands. (This is often only a couple of lines.)
  4. In your videos, use the first few seconds to detail what the viewer will get if they stick around.
  5. On your product pages, summarize the key benefits and offers before you get into the details.

When we look beyond the sales letter, the Johnson Box becomes a way of thinking about all our content and touchpoints. And it works. We recently added Johnson Boxes to a client’s highly optimized website and increased its conversion rate by 20%!

See you next time on Copywriting Friday.

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